March 29, 2015

So You Want to be a "Piano Man"?

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is an iconic sing-along and is frequently requested at the exact kind of gig it describes. While there is considerably less drama on an average piano gig, Mr. Joel’s song does describe the challenges of this work.
The best pianist in the area occasionally calls me to sub for him at his steady piano engagement. It’s one of the better gigs in town, a long-established restaurant with a nice atmosphere, friendly staff, no gear required, and decent compensation. I have been doing work like this for many years and have learned that the qualifications have little to do with piano technique in the normal sense of the phrase. The more piano you play will be in inverse proportion to your success. The function of the music is to add to the ambience of the evening for the patrons and make them stay a bit longer, have an extra drink, and leave feeling their money was well spent.
Earlier in the week someone asked me how many songs I normally play during a piano gig so I decided to keep track last night. After every two or three songs I wrote down the names, and was surprised when I counted them this morning. Between 6 and 10 p.m. I played 79 songs, almost twice what I would have guessed. My breaks on this gig are fairly short; in total I probably played 3-1/2 hours worth of piano. You can do the math. Some of the songs were medleys, but I don’t feel that they were short versions. If you could see the set-up in this particular restaurant, you would notice that there’s no space for music to be placed in front of you. The lid on the piano is closed and there is no room for a music stand. This requires that the pianist has an extensive memorized repertoire; a list of the songs you actually know is a great help. My first song of the evening, at 6 p.m., was a lovely ballad from the 1940s, “These Foolish Things” and my last song, at 10 p.m. was Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” The selections covered tunes from eight decades.
What guides the choices? I draw an analogy to a Pandora station selection called “Dinner Party Radio.” The songs it yields fall under a category I describe as: “no one dislikes these songs.” You may not love all of them, but how can you dislike “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” or “My Girl.” My song choices are guided partly by this principle, with a caveat that I’m trying to play a wide variety of styles. Amongst last night’s selections: “On the Street Where You Live” and “Edelweiss” from Broadway; “My Way,” the required Sinatra; Bach’s “Minuet in G” for my token classical number; a few Beatles tunes; and “Fire and Rain.” Who doesn’t like James Taylor? And with this blog in mind, I included “Piano Man,” challenging myself by doing it in D flat.
It was a slow night for audience interaction. No happy birthdays to play and only two requests. “It Had to be You” was an easy one, but I was almost stumped by a patron’s request for the theme song from the Freddy Martin Orchestra. Freddy Martin! He led a sweet swing band and I had this vague recollection that his theme song was an adaptation of a classical number. When I asked the requester to hum a few bars (which rarely works) I followed with, “wasn’t it a classical number?”  And he goes, “Yes! A Tchaikovsky piano concerto.” That did it for me — enough to remember the first four bars and fake the rest. He seemed happy and exclaimed, “yes, that’s it!”
On occasion when I solicit requests from a table, a person will say, “well what if you could make a request, what would you like to hear? Play that.” And indeed I did last night, choosing a song I recently learned, “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson — a Gospel-inflected number that is soulful but restrained enough to fit the setting.
I know for a fact that a significant number of substitute pianists have been hired and not called back for this gig. They may not know the reason, but I do. People like to sing along with songs in their head, especially the ones they love. If you’re playing a song that they love, and you disguise it in a style that demonstrates your own technique instead of celebrating the song, people will not respond, your tip jar will reflect it, and your phone will ring less.
If you’re playing on a piano that doesn’t have much to give, don’t make the mistake of trying to get out of it more than it has. Look around the room. Are people leaning close to each other because they can’t hear over your piano playing? Figure out what is required on the date and subdue your ego accordingly. You can take pride in demonstrating the considerable skill necessary to fulfill the requirements for the gig. It’s not that hard. Just memorize every song ever written in every style imaginable, and be able to fake the ones you forgot to learn. But don’t take my gig.
You might also enjoy The Tip Jar, another entry of mine concerning the logistics of playing a solo piano gig.

March 11, 2015

Lew Soloff, 1944-2015

On the heels of the death of Clark Terry, we now mourn the passing of another trumpet legend. Lew Soloff passed away on Sunday, March 8, at the too early age of 71. I was enrolled in the music program at SUNY Fredonia in the late 1960s, and Blood Sweat & Tears LPs were constantly on our turntables. For us it was a musical triumph to have trumpets, saxophones and trombones share equal space with electric guitars. Lew Soloff was responsible for the virtuosic solos that helped BS&T score number one hits.
Lew was a jazz man at heart, and while he enjoyed the notoriety of playing in a band that celebrated rock, his tenure with BS&T was a small part of his career. He was a member of an elite group of instrumentalists who could excel in any musical situation. Although his resume included playing behind Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Sting, and Billy Joel, his driving passion was to improvise. One of his proudest accomplishments was his recordings with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, which he co-founded.
Frank Foster
Unsolicited praise is the best kind, and in 1998 Frank Foster addressed the subject of race and jazz and when he wanted to cite a white musician at the top of his game, he spoke about Lew.
FF:    Are you familiar with Lew Soloff? Lew Soloff can play anything, can play jazz, can play lead trumpet, he can play in a section, you know, he can just do anything that’s necessary for a jazz trumpeter to do. Big band, small group, whatever.
Lew described the difference between being very good at what you do, and exceptional.
LS:    It takes a lot to concentrate and to be a master, a real master, or to try to be a master of one thing. It’s basically a different thing of being a working trumpet player, which means hello, sure, sub over here tonight, yeah? Wedding tomorrow night? Sure. Okay, a block party? Fine. A jingle here, you know, a recording date. There’s one thing to being a working trumpet player, and it’s great and it feels really good to be called for that kind of work. But it’s another thing to be a working musical personality, where people hire you because of the way you play, not because of the way you play the trumpet, but because of the way you play. Because of the way you can play a song. Because they like your style. The first person who made me aware of it very clearly was Warren Vaché actually, who I’m a great admirer of. And I was telling him — this was years ago and I was doing a lot of studio work — and I said, “gee I really want to get better at playing jazz” and this and that. “Well, look,” he says, “it’s kind of hard to do when you play the way everybody else wants you to all the time.” Gil Evans of course would state it as it’s basically hard to be creative when you have to be professional.
Having music as your main source of income is a dicey affair. Frank Foster described it as “freelance starving.” Nonetheless, my classmates and I aspired to it, and Lew Soloff was one of the best examples of where we wanted to be. He spoke eloquently about the passion and the strong sense of direction that aspiring musicians had to have:
MR:    Have any words of advice for young trumpet players or musicians trying to break into the business these days?
LS:    Yeah. I do. First of all you have to decide what you want to do, whether you want to be an instrumentalist, a trumpet player per se, or whether or not you have a love of jazz to the point where you want to be a stylist. You have to decide what you want to do. If you want to be an in-demand cat, and I include women in that, to play any kind of job for anybody, the key is versatility and very fast sight reading ability. There are people that learn to read lines ahead of where they’re playing. Very few people have this ability but some people do, culminating in maybe a whole page ahead, almost like photographing the page with your mind. But most people that can do that learn it when they were very small. But it’s a good thing to learn to read, if possible, a bar or two ahead, or even more if possible, then where you’re playing. It’s a skill that’s hard to develop, I don’t have it, I read maybe a couple of beats ahead of where I’m playing. But if you can do that, if you can become a superb sight reader, if you want to become a horn for hire or a musician for hire, that’s one of the prime things you need to do. And there’s another kind of musician who could be a for-hire musician as a sideman, and I think this combines with being a stylist, where you may not have to read as well but you still have to be a good reader if you’re going to play in somebody else’s band. Because somebody else wants to do new material, and if the whole band can learn the material in two hours and you need to spend four days learning it because you can’t read, if there’s another person plays as well as you they’re going to get the job. On the other hand if you’re such a super excellent player that somebody wants your feeling on it, you’ll get the job even if you’re a slow reader. But that’s rare. It exists, but rare. And then, if you’re hooked on music and you want to really express yourself playing your music you should start getting bands together, ensembles together, whatever it is you like to play and you should start assuming the role of leadership at a young age and learn how to play your own music, in your own group, and how to get a whole concept of what you like. Develop your whole concept of what you like and go for it. Don’t have any doubts about it. And the final piece of advice is that it’s a very competitive field, everybody would like to have a good time rather than go to work and do a job they don’t like from nine to five. So if you love it enough and you really want to do it, work really, really hard at it. And if you don’t have the ability to work hard at it, it’s going to be a very dangerous field for you to make a living. There’s no guarantee of making a good living anyway in it, because it fluctuates. But, in other words, the passion has to overcome all the possible problems. It’s very possible to make a great living at it also. But the passion has to overcome all these problems. It has to become more important than a comfortable (meaning rich) lifestyle. It has to be more important to you than that, and then you might get the rich lifestyle from it.
MR:    That’s great advice.
LS:     Otherwise don’t go into it.
For two additional Jazz Backstory blog entries that featured Lew with Blood, Sweat & Tears, you might enjoy Spinning Notes from 6/19/14, and Inside the Studios Part IV from 9/1/14.

March 4, 2015

Orrin Keepnews, 1923-2015

Orrin Keepnews, in 2002

In my 20 years as Director of the Fillius Jazz Archive I have learned of the interconnectedness in the jazz world. It seems there are only one or two degrees of separation between jazz artists and the circle of producers, record executives, journalists and fans that surround the musicians. Orrin Keepnews, record producer and co-owner of Riverside Records, signed Cannonball Adderley to his label. Cannonball employed pianist Junior Mance early in his career. The liner notes to Junior’s LP entitled “Harlem Lullaby” were written by Orrin Keepnews. This record was produced by Joel Dorn, who released Cannonball Adderley live dates on Hyena records as well as archival recordings by Joe Williams. This is the same Joe Williams who sang the lead role in Cannonball Adderley’s musical “Big Man,” released on Fantasy records. Fantasy Records hired Orrin Keepnews in 1972 as Director of Jazz Productions and to oversee reissues of recordings from Riverside Records. And so it goes.
We regularly note the passing of jazz artists who are in their 80s and 90s, and the people who produced them have also reached these golden years. Orrin is recognized as one of the most important producers, writers, and record company owners in the history of jazz, and is responsible for numerous recordings by Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk, and Cannonball Adderley. He described the role of a producer as he saw it, in our interview recorded in San Francisco in 2002:
MR:    I want to congratulate you on the contribution you’ve made to the art form called jazz. It’s really quite amazing the things you’ve been involved in and the careers that you have helped.
OK:    Well I must admit that I look back on it with a good deal of satisfaction. I’ve been very fortunate because in this business in particular, a lot of the associations that you form, at least initially, are accidental as hell. If someone tells me that I have been helpful to this or that career, that’s exactly the thing that I want to hear because I have always looked on the role of the producer in a very specific way. Now one of the hardest things, and I’ve been at it, I’m getting perilously close to my fiftieth anniversary in this business, but I still have to pause usually when I’m asked to make some kind of definition of what it is I do. Because for better or worse, I don’t know about other things because I’ve only done this really, but jazz record producers do a little bit of everything, as there is always a shortage of personnel, and to me the most important role is what I have taken to repetitiously referring to as being a catalytic agent. That I am supposed to create the circumstances under which the artist can work most effectively. I’ve finally got it boiled down to that one mantra and that’s what I am, that’s what I do. That statement is generally true, but the details of its implementation are constantly changing. There are almost literally no two artists who can be dealt with in the same way. There are perhaps no two record dates that can be dealt with in the same way. That may be pushing it a little bit, but fundamentally that to me is what the continuing challenge is all about. That’s why I didn’t get bored a long time ago with doing this. My job was to do two things. One is to appreciate and the other is to facilitate. And I usually don’t use such glorious words to describe it, but I’ve always been the guy that was able to get it done, which kind of surprises me sometimes. I don’t think of myself as being firm, as being decision-maker, I certainly do not believe in the auteur theory of jazz direction. I don’t think, and there have been people, and we won’t bother to name names, but there have been other jazz record producers who clearly do think of themselves as king makers. And I never did. It just got to be the point of hey, somebody’s got to make the decision and okay, that’s one of the things that I’m here for. Sometimes you might make decisions because nobody else is even in the position to even be aware of the need for a decision.
Like many men of his generation, Orrin served in the military during the World War II years. I found his recollections to be of particular interest:
MR:    Let me go backwards just a little bit. You were in the South Pacific.
OK:    I was on Guam. I was a navigator radar operator on B-29s. I did a lot of dropping of bombs on Japan, which I’m resolutely not proud of for the rest of my life.
MR:    At that time you were 23?
OK:    22 maybe, around in there.
MR:    How did you feel about it at the time?
OK:    At the time you didn’t feel about it. I mean I’m no great expert on it but there were two years in my life where I was involved in armed conflict and I think that one of the ways in which some of us emotionally survive was a form of anesthetizing yourself. You did not think about what you were doing. I don’t think, unfortunately at the end of the war, after the war was over, I flew a couple of missions where we were taking a batch of generals up to evaluate what had been done to Tokyo. So we flew in the daytime at pretty low levels over Tokyo, which is something I had never done before, and I was able to see Tokyo. I’ll take a lot of credit for the fact that Tokyo was a modern city that is almost entirely a post-war city. It looked to me to be about 50 percent burned out, I mean put it that way. And that was the first time, the shock of that hit me. Not to turn this into too much of a war memoir but basically between IM flights we didn’t do very much daytime formation bombing which involved demolition bombs. We normally did night flights where you just flew in a single file so basically you were following at a decent interval the plane ahead of you and we were dropping incendiary bombs so that what you did was it was a very lazy form of bombing, you just dropped on the fires that were in front of you. And if the first guy had been way off target, we all were because nobody did anything else but that. But the whole point there was that you could be very detached. You didn’t have to force yourself to think that you really were causing fires to happen in a large metropolitan city that was there. And you could block that out pretty good because hey, you had no alternative. This is what you were doing in the great war and I’ve long since given up figuring out whether this was, in many respects, a good or a bad thing. However, at this time of year as we get around the middle of August every year I am forced to think that in my personal opinion the damn atom bomb never should have been dropped. And let’s not get into the aesthetics or morality of that, but you have led me to this point in time so I make that statement. But you blot it out, the implications of what you were doing, I think because it was pretty necessary.
MR:    Right. Were the Japanese putting up a defense against your planes at that time?
OK:    In a lot of stages no. There was always a fair amount of antiaircraft fire but there were virtually no fighter planes. I mean the Japanese Air Force was pretty much shot to hell in the last months of the war which is the time I was primarily there.
Orrin saw the proliferation of jazz education programs and the advance of audio technology in an informative light:
MR:    Jazz has been elevated to a high state of art these days. Do you think it’s been positive for jazz?
OK:    That’s a hard question to answer. I do feel that when I have attended the last few jazz educators conventions I used to frown on jazz education because those God damn stage band so-called which were nothing but tired old big band charts and there were important things like the fact that if it wasn’t for North Texas State how would Woody Herman ever get new players for his band, all those clichés of the past. But the fact is I think that to some degree jazz education has done a wonderful job, it has progressed, there are people learning things on stages of the game where people never were learning before. As long as you recognize there is only one of a series of tools and it is by no means the only way to go. So that I would say on the whole, hey, if you asked me did I think that multi-track recordings was a positive or a negative experience I’d say pretty much the same thing. If you keep it under control it’s just fine. If you use it, if you don’t let it use you, if you use the fact of jazz education, the proliferation of it in so many places, if you use that to the purposes of making good jazz it’s fine. But don’t let it run away with you. I feel that way about technical progress. I mean I love digital recording. I have always been of several minds about multi-track for just that reason, I don’t want the bass player to be able to punch in the right notes, I want it to be important what notes they were playing when they were listening to him while they were playing. So that makes me an anachronism in some ways I know. But so be it.
Orrin passed away on March 1, one day shy of his 92nd birthday. The jazz world was fortunate to have had him as an integral force for over six decades.